Maple Sugar Time
EVENING IN A SUGAR ORCHARD
From where I lingered in a lull in March
Outside the sugarhouse one night for choice,
I called the fireman with a careful voice
And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch:
"O fireman, give the fire another stoke,
And send more sparks up the chimney with the smoke."
I thought a few might tangle, as they did,
Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare
Hill atmosphere not cease to glow,
And so be added to the moon up there…
- Robert Frost
from New Hampshire 1923
There are stories – rooted in traditional ritual labor and seasonal rural traditions – which write themselves. Maple sugaring is like that.
While the details vary with each sugarhouse and individual sugar-maker, the flavor is always sweet at the end of a long winter, the air is tinged with wood smoke, the steam of boiling maple sap and a burnt-marshmallow smell where syrup has boiled over the edge and scorched against the side of the cast iron evaporator.
I got my annual maple “fix” this year at a neighbor’s sugarhouse. John and Ann Wallace and their son, Tim operate their sugarhouse on hidden away in the muddy recesses of Barker Road in Sutton. Their little sugarhouse is a classic example of the backyard ramshackle architectural vernacular to which the best sugarhouses conform. Scrounged materials and Yankee ingenuity are hallmarks of sugaring.
The Wallace’s operation includes some 250 tap in Sutton and New London. They have made as little as 6 gallons in a poor year and as much as 31 gallons in a good one. “Generally we shoot for making 15 gallons. At 3 hours of boiling per gallon, that’s enough” John says. “We don’t sell it.” They make syrup for fun, for gifts and for their own use. “Have a taste” he offers. The full-bodied dark syrup is typical of the late-season.
John describes his maple orchard as “mostly witch trees” growing in the shade with smaller crowns, less sap volume and not as sweet as sun-grown, broad crowned sap cow growing along a pasture wall or on a front lawn. Up in the north-facing hill country of Sutton where snow remains in the woods and the nights remain cold, maple sap is slow to run in spring and generally runs later in the season than in other orchards.
“Most years we are tapped by late February or first of March. We traditionally finished boiling during the men’s basketball finals.” They won’t be able to watch March Madness in the sugarhouse, their old rabbit ear antenna TV won’t merit a converter box.
Like last spring, this season is shaping-up to be a good year which started late due to cold early March temperatures but without the problems of the near-record snowfall of 2008. Now at the end of March, their wood supply is running low even as the sap run continues. John notes “we had 3 full barrels this morning. I have nearly 500 gallons of sap to boil by the weekend.” The cold 25 degree nights and warm 45 degree days have been perfect. Earlier in the week, when nights were 15 degrees and days were barely 40 degrees the sap wasn’t running much.
The forecast of warmer nights and near 60 degree daytime temperatures this weekend will end it. Once the sap gets cloudy and the buds swell, the season is over. That is a mercy at this point in the season when after burning nearly 3 cords, the wood supply is running low even as the sap continues gushing.
“How many gallons will you make this year?” I ask. “Haven’t a clue. Won’t know until we jar-it-up” Ann replies matter-of-factly. John adds: “Oh we’ve certainly made ten (gallons) already.” And with nearly 500 gallons to boil they’ll surpass the 15 gallon target easily; likely get to 20 gallons at 50:1… if their wood supply holds up.
“Wanna hear my joke?” John asks with a twinkling-eye sugar-maker’s grin. “How can you tell an amateur sugar-maker from a professional?” I’ve heard this one before but I now give up. “Amateurs try to limit their losses to $300 or less!”
By now I’ve left the most-famous poet waiting outside a sugarhouse in 1923. It’s been 86 years since Frost’s “New Hampshire” collection was first published. While much has changed, some rare and wonderful things have not. Let Frost finish his poem:
“… The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow.
The sparks made no attempt to be the moon
They were content to figure in the trees
As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
And that was what the boughs were full of soon.”
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.